fMost underrated, this gourmet oasis is Italy’s seventh largest city, full of stunning medieval architecture and sprawling piazzas. The city shimmers with vibrant activity, its world-class cultural institutions hosting year-round events for a vibrant population of students and intellectuals.
There’s also a distinct lack of mass tourism — you won’t see busloads of day-trippers or gallery lines — so you can just join the flow of locals (especially if you add some Italian to your repertoire). Beloved by its compatriots, Bologna has not one but three nicknames; La Dotta (‘The Scholars’) in honor of the 11th-century university believed to be the oldest in Europe; La Rossa (“The Reds”) for the city’s left-wing politics; and, most importantly, La Grassa (“The Fat”), a nod to its notoriety as Italy’s foodie capital.
What should I do
Eat your way around town
Top priority for any trip to Bologna is the local food and knowing where to eat it. “Bolognese” is known regionally as Tagliatelle al Ragu, and it goes without saying that its city of origin serves up a life-affirming slab of the good stuff. The other signature Bologna dish is tortellini in broth—usually chicken—which are every bit as comforting as you’d imagine noodle and chicken soup to be. Now more than ever, dinner reservations are a must (see our Where to Eat section below for some recommendations to get you started), but you might also want to spend a day visiting the food markets, or book one yourself Food tour and a cooking class with experienced guides below Taste Bologna or Delicious Bologna tours.
Take in the architecture
Bologna is home to a number of beautiful Renaissance buildings that have been spared by the developers of bygone eras, from the UNESCO-listed porticoes (covered walkways) that frame the old university and Piazzas Maggiore and Santo Stefano to a total of 20 towers – most notably ‘Le Due Torri’ by Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower. Climb the former for breathtaking views of the city, and note that the latter is even more leaning than its Pisan counterpart. Plan a stroll around the famous main square of Piazza Maggiore to admire the Basilica of San Petronio and the stunning palaces that surround it.
Refresh your Italian cinema
Cinema di Bologna is the dedicated film institute that preserves, restores and promotes the local film heritage. Founded in the 1960s, Cineteca has been in its current trendy building for almost 20 years – here you can see the best of Italian cinema alongside current and international releases. The organization is behind the annual Visioni Italiane Film Festival, whose 28th edition will take place in Bologna from November 2nd to 6th, 2022, as well as the summer outdoor screenings that you will see in Piazza Maggiore during the summer months.
Back to university
The University of Bologna, nicknamed UniBo by its friends, is not just an architectural marvel and home of excellence in education (it’s the country’s highest-ranking university). It also includes a smorgasbord of miniMuseumsincluding Collections of Medieval Anatomy and Renaissance painting exhibitions.
Be sure to visit the Archiginnasio, the former university site, which includes a 17th-century anatomical lecture hall and a fascinating ancient library, before heading to the present-day site at Palazzo Poggi, home of the UniBo since 1803. The individual museums therefore have different, unpredictable opening times. Find out more online in advance.
Where to sleep
Bologna has a wide range of bed and breakfast accommodation in the historic center, with vibes ranging from kitschy to minimalist. AB Suite Innovative Design B&B – a refurbished 1850s hotel remodeled in boutique style – is a prime choice just east of the university. Doubles from £70. absuiteinnovativedesign.it
For something more central, look up BLQ01 Boutique B&B at the Quadrilatero, a lovely stay with a boho feel and a super friendly host who serves a delicious breakfast. Doubles from £92. http://blq01.it/en/calderini
If you are more inclined to book a stay that offers the works that are deceptively named Student Hotel Bologna is for you. In a trendy, large building north of the train station, the living and working spaces were designed for nomads and long-distance workers. It features an outdoor pool and indoor gym, as well as some of the largest spaces in the city. Double rooms from £81 per night, longer stay discounts available. thestudenthotel.com/bologna/
Check in for mountains of character Phi Hotel Bologna – Al Cappello Rosso, a tastefully restored hotel that has been welcoming guests since 1345. The property, which began as an inn in the 14th century, has been welcoming visitors regularly for 600 years and is now a four-star delight, complete with local modern art lining the walls and a divine but small restaurant. Doubles from £87. phihotelbologna.com/hotel
where should we eat
Unlike its tourist twin towns, you’re more likely to get a good bite here than a mediocre one – whether you’re snacking at a bar or sitting down to make a night of it. A standout tavern-like spot that will be at the top of your hit list Osteria del Cappello, embedded in the already mentioned Phi Hotel Bologna – Al Cappello Rosso. Since 1345, this place has been offering visitors the best of Bolognese cuisine, making it the oldest restaurant in the city. It’s an intimate size with only six tables, so make sure you make a reservation whether you’re a hotel guest or not, and be sure to try the fried tortellini.
While Ruggie is technically A bar that serves tantalizing dishes throughout the day, with pasta, burgers and salads all given a modern twist. Tucked away in a city center alley, the rustic interior of this former bicycle repair shop (Ruggie meaning “rust”) spills onto the streets and takes over the sidewalk with delicious dishes and exceptional cocktails. The staff are happy to give you recommendations, so be sure to chat with them about the menu.
Bologna is a meat lover’s paradise, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good vegan outposts. Cucina Botanical Laboratory is a classic plant-based affair that’s very affordable considering how chic it is. Vegan pasta is plentiful, as are the Mediterranean fusion platters. Don’t miss the cashew-based cheesecakes, whether you’re a carnivore or a herbivore.
where to drink
Drop by anytime Cafe Rubik for some of the best people-watching in town. Strong Italian coffees are served during the day and cocktails at night. The walls are lined with shelves full of cassette tapes, china teapots, and vintage toys, punctuated by works by local artists. Cafe de la Paix has the same all-day lounge vibe, with an added fair-trade sustainable ethos.
Step inside to experience Bologna in full force Osteria del Sole, the oldest wine bar in town. With a pleasantly unassuming facade, it’s a bustling pub popular for graduation parties – and trust us when we say that Italian university graduations really are something to watch (you’ll never forget the song). You can even bring your own food if you’re not quite full from your dining adventures.
For an interactive evening, head to Senza Nome, whose deaf or hard of hearing bar staff will offer you some sign language tips or flashcards, but all can read lips if your communication skills aren’t up to the task. This high-ceilinged bar serves excellent snacks, but beware when it comes to delectable decor Le Stanzewhose fading, elegant Renaissance murals and ceilings will enchant you, as will the cocktails.
Where to shop
Nothing says “I’ve been to Italy” quite like a new pair of handmade leather shoes and the Bologna branch of Milan’s shoemakers Velasca is that Point of contact for noble brogues and other fine shoes. Their shop around the corner from Piazza Maggiore is a fun visit (not the usual austere environment for shoe sellers) in a converted garage with industrial decor and neon lights.
Make yourself popular and take home a beautiful, vacuum-sealed packet of tortellini from La Casa del Tortellino, who sells freshly made artisan pasta from their lab slash food bar. It’s a bit out of the city center but close to the airport so make the pit stop if you leave that way.
Like many student cities, Bologna has a great vintage clothing scene. Take some time to explore and find that one-of-a-kind, beloved shirt at La Leonarda, Humana Vintage Bologna and Zero Vintage – all of which carry quality collections and have lovely staff. If bric a brac is your thing there is a strong weekly flea market in Piazza VIII Agosto on Fridays and Saturdays.
Bologna has a rich history of natural sciences and La Bottega dei Minerali uses this heritage and sells a beautiful range of crystals and minerals as well as unusual pieces of jewellery. You’ll find it north of the main train station – it’s open in the morning until 1:30 p.m. and after the lunch break again from 3:30 p.m. Ideal as a gift – or treat yourself.
When you’ve had enough of Renaissance devotees, take the time to visit the Bologna Shoah Memorial, a deeply moving, contemporary space completed in 2016 to commemorate the Holocaust and Italy’s lost Jewish communities.
Screws and nuts:
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Should I tip?
At least 10 percent. Also, expect a “Coperta” cover charge of around €2 added in restaurants.
How should I move?
On foot, it is a pleasantly walkable city.
What’s the best view?
Climb the 468 steps of the taller “Le Due Torri” – Asinelli Tower for panoramic views of the city below.
Bologna has some great public parks, the finest of which, Giardini Margherita, is home to a recently renovated botanical garden. It’s a great place to work, rest, and play, and tends to be a meeting place for students as it’s the ideal place to study, thanks to cheap food and drink and free Wi-Fi.
Are you trying to fly less?
Take the Eurostar from London to Paris, then an SNCF train on to Turin, from where you can take a local train to Bologna.
Good with flies?
British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair all fly to Bologna from the UK.